True to form, Robin’s disease did go into remission for a time. Once that summer, they traveled to the family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, and Robin got to see her brothers. Then she made a brief trip to Texas, the farthest the hospital had let a leukemia patient go. It was a chance for her to see her home in Midland, and for her family and friends to see her, one more time.
Many in Midland shied away, worried that leukemia might be contagious. Barbara Bush never forgot the pain that caused her. Later, as first lady, she would make a point of embracing HIV/AIDS patients at a time when many were skittish.
But before long Robin had to return to the hospital in New York, her health failing, the treatments no longer working. Robin caught pneumonia and spent time in an oxygen tent. Her legs were covered with bruises. There were dozens of painful open sores on her torso. She was bleeding internally. Barbara and the doctors called George Bush in Texas to discuss one more operation. “I said, ‘No, we’ve done enough to her,’” Bush told them. There was nothing more that could be done. “We thought it was time to let her go.”
He flew back to New York. By the time he arrived, Robin had slipped into a coma.
“One minute she was there, and the next she was gone,” Barbara Bush said. “I truly felt her soul go out of that beautiful little body.” Her mother combed Robin’s curly blond hair for one last time. Barbara was 28 years old when her daughter died in her arms.
“Like an oak in the wind, she was tossed, but she would not be moved,” the author Richard Ben Cramer would write of Barbara’s forbearance. She had accomplished her mission. She had never cried in front of her frail little girl, not once. Now the tears could flow, and they did.
The Bushes already had decided to donate Robin’s body to research in hopes that it would speed understanding of the disease, that it might help save some other child. While she had been sick, they had overheard grieving family members in the next room berate a doctor who had asked if they would give their child’s body to science. They took a lesson from that, and applied it when their time came to answer that hard question.
Robin’s burial would be delayed to allow time for the researchers to examine her. George and Barbara scheduled a memorial service for family and a handful of friends at Christ Church in Greenwich before they returned to Midland. They were at the home of George’s parents, getting ready in an upstairs bedroom. They could hear the others gathering on the first floor. Suddenly, Barbara’s stoicism evaporated. She couldn’t face anyone, she told her husband. She couldn’t do it. She was done.
George looked out the window and saw Barbara’s sister and brother-in-law, Martha and Walt Rafferty, walking up the driveway. “Sure, and with the O’Raffertys, it is going to be a grand wake!” he told her. It was the sort of deliberately goofy comment that could make her laugh, that would help her to hold it together one more time.